Another not really a book review

I enjoy reading old (10yrs or more) futurism books, but business books can be just as much fun, in an odd sort of way.

Take, for instance, the big fat book (584 pages with relatively small margins–the text block is 28 picas wide and 47 picas high, as compared to the 26×42 pica block I typically use for a 6×9 book) I just finished reading… Infinite Loop by Michael S. Malone. Published March 1999. For those who don’t know the subject from the title, here’s the subtitle: “How Apple, the World’s Most Insanely Great Computer Company, Went Insane.”

It appears to be a near-postmortem for Apple, as Malone seems convinced that Apple would never have any significance as a company after 1999, if it survived at all. Indeed, he psychoanalyzes the company in a manner that leads him to conclude…well, here’s the quote:

Before and after everything, companies are about character… Good companies have strong characters. Great companies have heroic characters.

Of all the great companies of recent memory, there is only one that seemed to have no character, but only an attitude, a style, a collection of mannerisms…

This was Apple Computer Inc…

Malone, a long-time Silicon Valley reporter, seems convinced that Apple’s downfall was fated from the start.

Downfall? What downfall?

That’s a reasonable question, particularly from a 2010 perspective. In fiscal 1999, Apple was roughly a $6 billion company. In fiscal 2009, it was a $36 billion company–and the last decade had relatively low inflation: If Apple had just kept up with inflation (tough to do, since PC prices deflate), it would have been a $7.65 billion company in 2009. In other words, accounting for inflation, Apple had more than 4.5 times the sales in 2009 that it did in 1999.

Note: The first half of FY2010 is even better–$29 billion in sales–but since that includes the holiday season, I’m unwilling to project those figures for a year. In any case, Apple doesn’t seem to be falling apart this year either.

In other words, in some pretty fundamental ways, Malone got it wrong–perhaps because he tried to hard to get inside people’s minds.

It’s a fascinating read, all the more so when you know the ending is seriously flawed. There are no footnotes, but he cites a lot of sources. I’m inclined to suggest there were no editors, either, but that may be unfair.

On the other hand…

You could say, with some legitimacy, that Apple as a computer company isn’t all that important any more, although I can almost hear the howls of outrage from fanboys and other dedicated users. Malone makes much of the declining market share for Apple, how being at 5% or less (and being incompatible with the rest of the market) makes it hard to take them seriously.

In 2009, Apple sold about 10.4 million computers (including 3.2 million desktops). That’s about 4% of the worldwide market for 2009. If the increased sales for the first half of FY2010 continue, Apple would sell about 12.6 million computers–of about 300 million projected to be sold worldwide. Again, somewhere between 4% and 5%.

Apple is mostly not a computer company any more. It’s a telephone and home entertainment/consumer electronics company that also makes computers. Unfair? For FY2009, computer sales represented a little over a third of Apple’s total sales. For the first half of FY2010, computer sales are a little over a quarter of Apple’s total sales. iPhone revenues exceed total Mac revenues. By quite a bit.

If you wanted to defend Malone, you could say that he just missed this future transformation, that Pixar’s Jobs could turn Apple into an enormously successful entertainment and phone company, with a decent sideline of computers.

But I don’t know that I much want to defend Malone… I think he just got it wrong.

An equal generosity of spirit toward all

I’ve seen a few reviews that say Malone is biased against Apple, or more particularly, against Jobs.

I don’t see that.

Oh, sure, Malone speaks badly of Jobs (and Amelio, and Sculley, and Spindler, and for that matter Wozniak–albeit in very different ways). But he also speaks very badly of Ellison, Gates, and most everybody else (except for Hewlett, Packard and Moore). He clearly loved Apple products for many years–if anything, his attitude seems that of a disappointed fan more than anything else. He pretty much despises IBM, Microsoft and the rest…

I can’t find the quote again, but there’s an interesting point at which Malone says Jobs wanted to save the world if he could rule it–where Gates just wanted to own the world. It’s interesting to see who is actually setting about to save the world…

In the end, I count this as an interesting (if seriously flawed) book that shouldn’t be taken too seriously. At least it lacks the idolatry of some Apple-related books–but I’m not sure replacing idolatry with mean-spirited corporate psychoanalysis is a big improvement.

And is it really plausible that all these Apple higher-ups (and others) were doing so much sobbing all the time? Really? I was working in Silicon Valley through most of the period covered here (1979 and on), although not really within the PC field, and I don’t remember it as an unusually teary place. But from this account, people were bursting into tears all over the place. I must have missed something.

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